Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Better Living through Chemistry or how to avoid Mass Extinction

Cyclodextrins are sugar molecules that form into circles and will hold nearly their own weight of a targeted liquid. This is the secret to the powdered alcohol that got approved by the Treasury Dept for tax purposes only to have that approval revoked in less than a week. These sugars are useful in the food industry and pharmaceuticals. 

Over a 150 differently shaped molecules have been created so far and each will absorb a specific type of liquid, cholesterol for example can be trapped and removed from food with one. Drugs can be time released or delivered so that won't be absorbed until they reach the large intestine. There is one that soaks up certain offensive odors that's sold under the trade name Febreze. 

Some are available to consumers that can yield unique flavors in gourmet cooking.  There is a recipe online if you want to make your own powdered alcohol. Great for those of you who prefer 'freeze dried' stores instead of canned goods. 

The official report on the one kiloton blast that occurred in the unregulated Libertarian Paradise of West, Texas was a 'preventable' occurrence (well duh). Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is actually safe to handle, it won't explode, it's actually a very stable oxidizer. To use it as an explosive its saturated with fuel oil and detonated using nitroglycerin in a highly concentrated formula of dynamite. Ordinary dynamite won't set it off, but if you get a really hot fire going you can heat to the point that it will start oxidizing any available fuel. In West, Texas this came in the form of an old wooden feed warehouse being used a fertilizer plant. The use of this structure is something regulators wouldn't have allowed, had there been any. 

Once the oxidizing reaction starts, it produces a fireball that only takes a fraction of second until it uses all the ammonium nitrate or consumes everything organic within its reach. This includes the wood of surrounding buildings, some metals, fuel in tanks, tires on vehicles including fire trucks, hoses, firefighters and anything else it touches. This fire ball moves up and out in the classic mushroom cloud but also generates a shock wave the emanates out at ground level creating mass destruction at a considerable distance from the actual fire ball. But don't worry, the 'free market' will take care of this problem in the future.

Speaking of the 'free market', the increasing popularity of E-cigs has prompted lobbyists to push for them to be regulated by the FDA much as cigarettes are now. The official line is that you can't have just anybody mixing up nicotine in a bathtub, an apparent reference to Prohibition era alcohol that was sometimes deadly. The term 'bathtub gin' actually doesn't refer to the quality of the hooch but to the shape of square gin bottles that would allow them to slide under a bathtub that had legs. Round liquor bottles were just a little too big. 

Guess who is getting into the E-cig business? The big three cigarette companies of course, they don't mind the regulations since they will write them.

In case you haven't seen the screaming headlines in the corporate media, the Navy Research Lab has developed a proprietary process that has ended Big Oil. They are doing this by using a electrolytic process to remove dissolved and bound CO2 from seawater and simultaneously producing Hydrogen gas. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system. Researchers estimate the cost on a commercial scale to be about $3/gallon. At that price the Navy doesn't need to buy fuel and transport it. The US military is the world's single largest user of fossil fuel, (up until now).

According to the USN, all it takes is a lot of electricity, like you have on a nuclear aircraft carrier, or say from a wind farm built offshore. The process can actually work using nothing but air, but sea water has much more CO2 and seawater is something the Navy has plenty off. Other than the obvious big advantage that the process is completely carbon neutral, it also reduces the acidity of seawater. During the Permian Extinction, that killed almost the entire planet, the high acidity of the oceans caused them to become devoid of life bigger than some poisonous bacteria. This will be our fate if Global Warming exceeds a certain point. Will the Navy save us, or sell the process to Big Oil? Trade it for a handful of navy beans perhaps?

Twitter @BruceEnberg - where we stave off mass extinction one tweet at a time.